General Synod decisively rejected the Bishop of Gibraltar’s call for theological reflection on the Rochester Report. Perhaps it was right for, as Stewart Seton reveals, the report relies on arguments it has itself rejected

Why did General Synod bother with the Rochester report if it was just going to ignore it? Most of those who argued in favour of women’s ordination on July 11 did so by using arguments which Rochester explicitly says fail (what I shall call the ‘dubious arguments’).

Such protagonists can, however, be forgiven for, oddly, a number of the arguments advanced in favour of women’s ordination even in Rochester itself (especially in chapter 5) are simply versions of arguments Rochester had already condemned as dubious in chapter 3. So what are these dubious arguments? Paras. 3.1.2–35 set out four such arguments:

(i) it is self-evident that women should be bishops; (ii) there is widespread support for the idea within the Church of England; (iii) the (positive) experiences of women ministers and those who have benefited from their ministry; (iv) women bishops are required as a matter of justice as understood by contemporary British society.

The young mum argument

Some of the arguments in chapter 5 are straightforwardly examples of these dubious positions. The most striking example of this comes in paras. 5.3.47–51: the so-called ‘missiological need for women bishops.’

The argument is illustrated in paragraph 5.3.48 in which a submission refers to a conversation on a train with a ‘young mum’ who said, ‘Well, if they really think that God doesn’t want women bishops, then he’s not the God I would want to have anything to do with.’ The submission concludes: ‘The implications for mission speak for themselves.’ Indeed they do.

Supposing the young mum had said instead, ‘Well, if they really think that God wanted his innocent Son to die for the sins of the guilty, then he’s not the God I would want to have anything to do with,’ what would this missiological argument direct us to do then? Ditch the proclamation of our redemption in Christ, presumably. Surely missiology does not require us to rank the ill-formed opinions of individuals on trains above the example of Christ?

Why should the opinions of one individual be so important anyway? Because that opinion is assumed (rightly or wrongly) to have widespread support in contemporary society. But why should our society be so certain that women bishops are God’s will? For many, one suspects, it will seem self-evident. For the more thoughtful, it may seem a matter of justice as understood by contemporary British society. Others will think it follows from the fact that experience shows women have the right gifts for the job. It appears therefore that this ‘missiological argument’ for women’s ordination is in danger of being a version of not just one, but all four of Rochester’s dubious arguments.

The hermeneutical lens

Other versions of the dubious arguments are harder to spot, but they are there if you look closely. For example, in paras. 5.3.2–4 an apparently ingenious argument appears. We are told, quite honestly, that Scripture clearly has ‘hesitations’ about the ordination of women, but that we now have a ‘fresh hermeneutical lens’ which enables us to look beyond such surface hesitations, to see that ‘the full weight of the biblical testimony’ in fact supports the ordination of women. But when we ask why we now have this fresh hermeneutical lens, the answer given is that we have ‘the positive experience of the ministry of women priests.’ So this argument is simply a version of dubious argument iii. Now if we remove the fresh hermeneutical lens because it is invalid, are we not simply left with the ‘hesitations of Scripture’?

The fact that even supporters of women’s ordination admit that Scripture has ‘hesitations’ about women’s ordination is intriguing. A similar attempt to get around these hesitations is found in the suggestion that despite them, the ‘overall trajectory of Scripture’ teaches ‘the essential dignity, equality and complementarity of the whole of humanity before God’ (para. 5.3.5). There then follows a whole series of citations from the Old Testament supporting this view. But no opponent of women’s ordination will deny ‘the essential dignity, equality and complementarity’ of men and women, ‘before God’ or otherwise.

Our question is, does it follow that because men and women are equal that therefore they are interchangeable? These sections of Rochester do not appear to address this question in relation to the Bible, since they are only concerned with equality. In other words, discussing women’s ordination in the language of contemporary justice (using words like ‘equality’), these interpretations of Scripture depend on dubious argument number iv. This in turn means that, like the fresh hermeneutical lens, the ‘overall trajectory of Scripture’ argument fails.

Re-reading Paul

The discussion of the New Testament material is a little better. Here we find attempts to show that men and women must be ministerially interchangeable, since men and women exercised the same ministries in New Testament times. The trouble is, that although these paragraphs avoid the wrong-headedness of the Old Testament discussion, nonetheless they fail because they are simply unconvincing. For example, I have argued previously in ND (March 2005) that the attempt in para. 5.3.11 to explain away the maleness of the Twelve fails, and is in any case indebted to dubious argument number iii.

What follows is a set of texts which show that women were actively involved in the early Church. But the obvious questions seem at best brushed over: do these texts really show women exercising what we might call apostolic or priestly kinds of ministries? Do they show that men and women were ministerially interchangeable in the early Church? If so, how? If not, how are they relevant? Alternatively are we supposed to infer from them that since women were doing these (albeit non-apostolic or priestly) ministries in the early Church, that therefore they should be ordained now? If so, how do these texts direct us to make this inference?

It is not possible to deal with these questions here (I considered the most promising example – that of a woman apostle – in ND last January) and they are not properly dealt with in Rochester, but it does seem to me that the only way to ensure these passages really give the answers women’s ordination needs, is to view them through that fresh hermeneutical lens, which as we saw is in turn a version of dubious argument number iii. If this is the case, then the biblical case for women’s ordained ministry is in disarray.

Another paragraph raises further difficulties: ‘There is no indication’ we are told in paragraph 5.3.12 ‘that leadership, when it was exercised by women, was in any sense different from that exercised by men.’ No indication? What about 1 Cor. 14.33–38 or 1 Tim. 2.11–14?

The paragraphs which attempt to deal with these problem passages for women’s ordination are among the most unsatisfactory in the whole report. For example, para 5.3.22 says ‘Paul did not think women unsuited to roles of responsible and authoritative ministry within the church, and any interpretation of 1 Cor. 14.33–35 [sic, the passage concerned concludes at v.38] and 1 Tim. 2.11–15 must reckon fully with this fact and be consistent with it.’ But why should those two ‘problem passages’ be qualified by those passages which describe women’s ministry? Unless it can be shown that women were certainly exercising full apostolic ministry, the obvious exegetical move would be to see the passages of women’s ministry and the ‘problem passages’ together: women did have important positions in the early Church, but not those which we might regard as priestly or apostolic. To follow the special pleading of para 5.3.22 is to accuse Paul of flat self-contradiction (and by the way, to fall foul of Article XX).

Special pleading

What I am objecting to here is the unwillingness of those contributors to this part of the report to ask difficult questions of the texts. It is almost as if their attitude is ‘Paul could not possibly teach that women should not take on such roles, therefore he didn’t, and no evidence will convince us otherwise.’ But why should we be so surprised if Paul taught that women should not take on some roles? Because it is self-evident that women should have them? Because it is unjust that women should not have them? Because most people today think women should have them? Because many women now feel called to these ministries? You can take your pick of the dubious arguments to answer that one, but it seems to me that you cannot answer ‘Paul could not possibly teach that women should not take on these roles in church because Scripture teaches that women should have these ministries.’ Scripture, I argue, only teaches that when you view it through the special pleading of the dubious arguments.

It is a serious deficiency that the arguments in favour of women’s ordination so often rest on these dubious arguments but never really grapple with the traditionalist objection, that although Scripture teaches that men and women are equal in Christ, it nonetheless teaches that they are not ministerially interchangeable. I do not say, incidentally, that biblical arguments which avoid the dubious arguments could never be produced, only that while supporters of women’s ordination constantly resort to the dubious arguments for support (both within Rochester and in the wider debate) it is not being done.

Consequently, the mere fact that for a long time, supporters of women’s ordination have had a numerical majority in the Church of England (dubious argument number ii incidentally) does not mean that the debate has been concluded in their favour. In the very least, we seem a long way from justifying the kind of unchurching of faithful members that will now be inevitable without a new province.